The First Freedoms
The Privacy Amendments
The 5th Amendment
The 6th Amendment
Civil Trials
The Interpretive Rules

7th Amendment

Civil Jury Trials and Appeals

Most modern Americans only see juries in criminal cases (as provided by the 6th Amendment), and only on television. There is, however, another area of law called civil law that, while it may not be as dramatic as criminal law, is also quite important. Civil Law comprises essentially everything other than criminal law. In a civil case, the parties are not arguing over sending someone to jail; rather, they are arguing, typically, over money. Sometimes they’re arguing over a lot of money, as in some of the tobacco cases of the 1990s, which resulted in settlements of billions of dollars. If one is sued in a civil lawsuit, he will come to know how important they are—he may be at risk of losing everything he has, at least his material things, like money and property.

Most people have also seen fictionalized appellate arguments on television, as when the lawyers on Law & Order argue to a panel of judges rather than to a jury. But relatively few know the purpose of an appeal. An appeal is not merely a second trial (although it may result in one). Rather it is a post-trial legal proceeding in which a party, usually the party that lost in a previous trial, can argue to a higher authority that the trial court made some kind of mistake, either of law or fact. If the appellate court agrees that the trial court erred, then the appellate court can order a different result in the case, ranging from a complete reversal to an order for a new trial—what we might call a do-over.

Why Did They Matter to the Framers?

Why did the Framers of the Bill of Rights care so much about these particular legal issues? Basically, because they perceived juries as being important checks on governmental power. And they were, at least during the colonial era, when (as the Declaration of Independence protests) judges were made dependent on the King’s will for their tenures and salaries. Those judges sometimes ruled in ways that the American colonists strongly disagreed with. But juries—made up of colonists—sometimes prevented the judges from issuing such rulings, even going so far as to make factual findings that effectively “nullified” laws that the colonists considered unjust. So Americans of the Founding Era trusted juries far more than they trusted judges.

That is what accounts for both clauses of the 7th Amendment: the first clause guarantees jury trials in civil cases, and the second clause prevents appellate judges from inappropriately undoing jury verdicts.